Thursday, September 27, 2012

Cultural Lessons in New Mexico: Air Conditioners vs Swamp Coolers

And now, for the weather

Missouri is hot and humid in the summer. So hot and humid that back in the day, before air conditioning, when there was a British consulate in St. Louis, the British staff received hardship pay.

New Mexico is hot and dry in the summer. Between 8 and 10 degrees hotter than Missouri (during the day). 

In Missouri, we use air conditioners to cool (and dry) the air. The air conditioners rely on electricity and (in older air conditioners) freon to work. (In New Mexico, I notice air conditioners are often referred to as "refrigerated air.")

Swamp cooler. Credit: Allied Swamp Cooler Repair

In New Mexico, swamp coolers are common. They rely on electricity and water to work.

St Louis Weather

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Avg. High 37° 42° 54° 66° 76° 85° 88° 87° 78° 68° 54° 41°
Avg. Low 20° 25° 35° 46° 56° 65° 70° 67° 60° 48° 37° 26°
Mean 28° 34° 45° 57° 66° 75° 80° 78° 70° 58° 46° 34°
Avg. Precip. 1.8 in 2.1 in 3.6 in 3.5 in 4.0 in 3.7 in 3.9 in 2.9 in 3.1 in 2.7 in 3.3 in 3.0 in
Degrees in Fahrenheit


Alamogordo Weather

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Avg. High 56° 62° 68° 78° 86° 95° 94° 91° 86° 77° 66° 57°
Avg. Low 28° 32° 38° 45° 54° 62° 65° 64° 57° 47° 36° 28°
Mean 44° 47° 54° 62° 70° 78° 80° 78° 72° 64° 51° 44°
Avg. Precip. 0.7 in 0.5 in 0.5 in 0.3 in 0.5 in 0.9 in 2.3 in 2.4 in 2.0 in 1.3 in 0.7 in 0.8 in
Degrees in Fahrenheit

The above info is from Country Studies

Humidity specifically

In July, Missouri typically has a relative humidity level between 50 and 80%, depending on time of day. 
In July, Alamogordo typically has a relative humidity level between 32 and 62%, depending on time of day. 

Generally, humidity is lowest during the hottest time of day. 

The humidity factor is important because swamp coolers work best when the air is dry. Too much humidity and they just generate hot, wet air. 

In Missouri, then, swamp coolers won't work. They won't work in the swamps, either. 

What the hell is a swamp cooler? 

Otherwise known as "evaporative" coolers, here is a really good explanation of swamp coolers. Complete with a moving graphic that shows the process.

As with air conditioners, swamp coolers will reduce the interior temps by, at most, 20 degrees. The drier the air, the more effective the cooling capacity.

With a swamp cooler, you must have a couple of windows open to create air flow. This is counter-intuitive, but that's just the way it is.

Swamp coolers are far cheaper to run than air conditioners, and they don't require the freon, which we know messes with the environment. 

On the other hand, swamp coolers do require water, which is an issue in some places. Per the link above, they can require between three to 15 gallons of water per day.

In New Mexico, there's the monsoon season in July and August. So you guessed it, that's the time of highest humidity, making the swamp coolers the least efficient during part of the hottest time of the year.  A nice quote from the linked site:

   "They only get 7-8 inches a rain a year, unfortunately it all falls in about 45 minutes".

Which is better? 
As you can see above, both have their pros and cons. In the places I looked at to rent, one has "refrigerated air" and two have swamp coolers. 

Being frugal, I'd prefer the swamp coolers. I'm told that where I might pay up to $200 for a month's worth of "refrigerated air," I'd likely pay less than half that with a swamp cooler. 

The trick is if the owners properly maintain the swamp coolers, as they do require more maintenance than air conditioners. But maintenance for a swamp cooler is sort of like cleaning out the gutters or getting an oil change - somewhat tedious, but not expensive like it can be for an air conditioner. 

So, my first culture lesson as new New Mexican. Swamp coolers.

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